Friday, October 31, 2008

Downfall of a Buffet - Failed Economy or Failed Management? - PART 1

Over the past three years I have written three articles about a buffet in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that took over a beautiful restaurant location that had previously operated successfully by a buffet/menu restaurant that moved to a more central location. The restaurant is now closed.

I will write about what took place from the first article in 2006 through its closing in 2008 now that the restaurant is gone and it may be lessons to be learned for any buffet manager, owner, or employees. Why did this restaurant close? It is not surprising. When all is said and done, it was not a good restaurant. It was bad at the start, it did not improve - even with a change in management who after my article in 2007 seemed to take notice and made efforts, and at the end it never did - I can't say recover - because there was never anything successful to come back to. When I first saw that it was closed, I commented to my wife that I wondered why the finally gave up. She looked squarely at me and said, "It really was a bad restaurant." On my last visit there - as written about in my July 2008 article I found improvements to the menu, the cooking, and especially enjoyed really good fried chicken. But there were not patrons at this restaurant - while other buffets in the area - even those more remotely located than this were packed, there were rarely more than two or three cars in the lot and three or four tables filled. So what can we speculate went wrong here?

Now, I truly have nothing personally against this restaurant while it was open, its manager, its owner, or it employees. There has never been a "vendetta" against it - as I have been accused of in a barrage of comments and emails sent to me by the manager of the restaurant and a very few patrons of the restaurant. Let me start the story here - at some point after the 2007 article - the manager of the restaurant who was brought in prior to my 2007 visit discovered the 2006 and the 2007 articles. He proceeded to begin a series of emails to me which at first acknowledged some of the problems that I noted about the restaurant and then became increasingly defensive, nasty, and, shall I say to be polite, disrespectful of me and my opinions. I took it all in stride and answered the emails with responses and constructive suggestions. What was taking place was that I and this site were the scapegoat for the fact that there were no customers at this restaurant. I would love to believe that this site is THAT IMPORTANT and that while we have thousands of readers, not everyone who visits or lives in Lancaster County, PA reads this site and determines where they will eat by my recommendation. The NY Times Food Critic I am not. I know that some do check this site before they travel some place or look for a new place to eat buffet, but certainly not enough to make or break a restaurant. No, what I am certain of is that I dine out like the average "Joe" and I look for the same things that everyone else wants to find - value, good tasting food, a pleasant dining experience, and cleanliness. If you can't deliver all or most of these then you will not have return business and friends will tell friends where they can find these basics. What I write is what I experience and I have my wife always with me to share the experience. She will tell agree or disagree with my findings and if she disagrees I will adjust my opinion to include her point of view with my own. If I am not certain about something I always make sure to get that second opinion from her. I write so that you will benefit from my experience, to inform you, and to amuse you. I want to like every restaurant that I walk into - and many, many times I do. When I wrote about this restaurant I wanted to enjoy it. Before this restuarant incarnation in this location there was another buffet here that was wonderful (and remains wonderful in its new location). What this location has going for it is an incredible view. After the first experience at the new restaurant, we went back a year later to give it another shot - which was worse than then first, and we went back a THIRD time to try it again and with that I linked the 2007 review to the "better" 2008 review. How much more can one do to be fair?

What went wrong at this buffet? This area is buffet world. There are probably more buffet restaurants in this one county than anywhere else in the country - with the possible exception of Las Vegas and Atlantic City at the casinos. Even in this summer of high gas prices and a poor economy there were hotels and motels in this area with no vacancies on the weekends. The weeks may not have had the tourist population that they usually have seen, but even during the week during this past summer there were tourists out and about. All of the buffets had full parking lots on Friday and Saturday nights and a good number of cars during the week, with one exception - this one. They did advertise and they did offer money off coupons in local papers geared to their target dining audience, the tourists. There were signs - as there always were for restaurants at this location - on the main road with just a short drive up a farm road to get to the restaurant. It was located with a motel - a ready made dining crowd. Yet, it still went out of business.

What did people experience when they went to this restaurant? I am not about to rewrite my three reviews, but I will give you highlights of what was different here from successful buffets near by.



Friday, October 24, 2008


Have you ever wondered where do buffet restaurants get all of the servers and such that create the buffet? Are you a restaurant owner who has decided to turn your restaurant into a buffet - and serve more people with less expense in the same amount of time? You too, with enough money, can build a buffet.

My good wife stumbled across this company and website by chance. Now I am not in any way recommending or endorsing this company. I am not being paid or being given any renumeration for writing about them. I have no idea of the quality or value of what they sell. I just think that it is very interesting to find out about just one of what must be many companies that equip buffet restaurants. The company's name is Gallery Line and you can click here to see their website.

They design and sell a modular system to create a buffet and the various serving stations that make up the buffet. Their system is set up to be both permanent and portable - as each section is interlocking and is on lockable wheels.

Want to see how a buffet is created? They have a video that shows you how - VIDEO. Check out the banner the lady is wearing when they start showing the system -I hope they paid here extra to wear it.

They seem to have everything that you need - dish stackers, a soup and salad bar module, cold servers, hot servers, sneeze guards, and the rest. And it all goes together so easily. Click through their on-line catalog and see all that goes into building a buffet. No prices though - you have to request prices directly. Too bad, because I am curious just how much one of the servers costs. I don't see any mention of beverage stations or soft drink machines - so you are going to have to seach a bit to find those. I am speculating that the soda companies may supply these, but I may be wrong.

There are setups shown to build regular buffet serving stations, cafeteria lines, and fast food counters. It all looks good too. It comes in three color choices and then there are add in panels to match wood decor in the restaurant. And if you don't like the configuration that you put together or want to add something different, you can snap it apart and put it back together - just like Legos. And because it can all be moved, as they show in the video, it is easy to clean under and around each unit.

How about setting up a personal buffet in your home? If you have the money it is likely that they will sell you all the modules that you would need. You can turn your family room or basement into your very own buffet.

Want to know about the inner workings of the servers? Click on the service manual link and the installation and service manual will open on your computer screen.

Thinking about going into the buffet business? It is all here. Well, not exactly all. You are going to need to lease restaurant space in a building, hire a complete kitchen and floor staff, hire assistant managers, bookkeepers, and all of the other valued employees required, purchase tables and chairs, decorate the dining room and, oh yes, you need to equip the kitchen - which is going to be the most expensive part of the equipment that you need to buy. This all and not to forget to mention the many permits, certifications, and licenses that you will need to meet all of the legalities. Not as easy as Galley Line's little video makes it sound. But not impossible.

Perhaps you are ready to take the plunge. When you do let me know where your buffet is and you may find your restaurant on this site.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ribs Are the Feature at Old Country Buffet

Last week I wrote that Old Country Buffet has a new feature on the weekends - Friday through Sunday at dinner. The feature is Kansas City Ribs and Butterfly Shrimp. As I said last week, the shrimp is no big deal at OCB, but the ribs are actually something special.

When I learned about this new feature I decided that I would take the first opportunity to go back and have the Kansas City Ribs. These ribs and the baby back ribs that OCB has served as part of summer feature menus years past are some of the best that buffets have to offer. I was hoping that the ribs on the new feature would be as good.

I arrived at OCB on a Friday night and there was a long line to get in. Since there has been no publicity for the rib feature other than a small poster located behind the cashier at this OCB I was sure that the crowd was not there for the ribs. I held my anticipation and waited my turn to pay and enter the dining room. Of course, the first thing I had to do after finding a table was make sure that those ribs were out on the buffet. What I found were a few scraps on a carving board in the carving area with a sign that said "Pork Riblets". Pork Riblets! That is not the same as Kansas City Ribs. Riblets are the chopped pork formed into rib shape served at fast food restaurants. I tempered my anger and had my soup and salad.

When I went up for my entree I went back to the carving area and what did I see - cut up Kansas City Ribs! Well, at least three of them, which was all that was left at the moment. Not wanting to be a grabber I took two of them and left the third for someone else. The ribs were not served as they were when they were the summer feature. Then they would be brought out in trays with a nice layer of warm barbecue sauce on top of the hot ribs. Now they were brought out to be carved. As the young lady who was carving seemed not wanting to be bothered by the customers coming up, she just cut up everything in advance and left a serving fork and tongs. This is not out of the ordinary at this particular OCB and I am almost certain that at others you will find that the employees are carving and slicing to order.There was some sauce on the ribs, but not much - not enough.

I took my ribs back to the table to see if they were as good as I remember. The meat on the first rib just fell away from the bone - my preference for this type of ribs. The meat was tender, a bit fatty, and the taste was exactly what I was hoping for. As I say, a little more sauce would have been nicer. The second rib that I had was not as cooked through as the first and the meat did not fall away, but did not take much coaxing to come off.

When I went back for more there were only a few scraps left on the carving board. I took a little of what looked worthwhile and waited for more to come out. When I got back again there were just two ribs left and this time I did take them both.

I thought about adding barbecue sauce, which is out on the condiment bar, but squeezed on sauce is never as good as cooked on sauce and decided that it would just overwhelm the taste of the ribs. These ribs were like the second that I tried. The meat did not fall off the bone but did pull right off. The taste was good and these ribs were not a dissappointment.

It is hard to find good ribs at buffets. Several buffets offer pork ribs. Few that are offered are "really" good. I have long felt that the Kansas City Ribs and the Baby Back Ribs are the best of what OCB has - and they do not bring them onto the menu often enough. I have tried ribs at other chain buffets and they are not as good. These have equalled those that I have had a more expensive restaurants. They are probably nothing like the ribs from "REAL" barbecue places - but I have not been to a "serious" barbecue "joint". Don't compare these Kansas City Ribs to the Beef Ribs that OCB usually serves - these are much, much better.

The feature is for a limited time. How limited I do not know. The feature may also not be offered at all OCB's as the website does not mention them. Call your OCB and ask before using the gas to make the trip (so sad that we need to think that way these days).

Oh and that Riblet sign - why would they do that? How hard is it to take a marker and write a small sign to stick up with the correct name on it? These are not riblets, they were the real thing.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Something New at Old Country Buffet

Actually, there are three somethings new at Old Country Buffet. Every so often we will go to Old Country Buffet for lunch. On the window there were two large posters. - one featured TAKE OUT buffet meals and the other featured Soup and Salad Bar Lunch. Hmm. Interesting.

We went inside and at the cashier there was another poster. This one said "New Feature". Old Country Buffet has not had a menu feature in almost a year - maybe longer. I have written about this during the year. I waited in anticipation of the "summer barbecue" feature that has been the highlight at OCB in July and August. It never came. I put it up to one of the consequences of a restaurant chain in bankruptcy. But now, looking up at this new poster, what do I see? Kansas City Ribs! Kansas City Ribs have been the center point of that summer barbecue feature. They are one of the few things that I will actually say that OCB does well. The new feature is Kansas City Ribs and Butterfly Shrimp. Now, butterfly shrimp have been around on and off for a while. A week ago they were on the Friday night buffet. Shrimp at OCB is no big deal. There is almost always fried shrimp in one form or another on the buffet. It was even there on the lunch buffet. But Kansas City Ribs are special and make an appearance for a very short time when there has been a featured bbq special. According to the poster, the Kansas City Ribs and Butterfly Shrimp are featured right now every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at dinner. Let's hope that it sticks around for a while.

Now, the other two "new" ideas at OCB. The first is Soup and Salad Bar lunch. This is available Monday to Friday at lunch only and costs $4.99. The regular lunch price costs $7.99 so you save $3.00 by skipping the hot food and the dessert bar. You can add the dessert bar for another $0.99. But how would this work in a buffet where everyone is mixed together, the buffet servers are all grouped together, and there are no wait staff returning to your table to refill drinks who will keep an eye on what you are taking? I was very curious.

I watched through our lunch to see if anyone was having the Soup and Salad Only lunch. As far as I could see, no one was. We looked around tables to see if there were different color table reserved tickets. We did not say any different from the lunch buffet ticket that we had. Finally, we found one of the staff that we know and asked (this person does not know that there is any connection between me and this site - as it is at every buffet that I go to). It was just a curious question about how does the soup and salad only lunch work. What we learned is that, indeed, you are given a different color ticket - and it is up to your table cleaner to keep an eye on you and make sure that all you take is from the soup and salad bar. I waited until we got outside after lunch to laugh. Here is a restaurant where the table cleaner barely comes around - if at all - to take away dirty dishes from the table. This is the person who is supposed to "watch" the tables to make sure no one is eating from the wrong buffet. I suspect that this new idea will be short lived when they find out that many who pay the $4.99 are eating everything - and not just soup and salad - with no one the wiser. (I AM NOT SUGGESTING THAT ANYONE DO THIS - IT IS ILLEGAL AND WRONG!) This is certainly going to happen. This especially will happen if the table is mixed with full buffet and soup and salad bar diners.

I have been to buffets that offer this and it does work, but at those buffets - as I alluded to above, there is a waitress or waiter assigned to your table to bring you drink refills. They are general around and about and will visit your table regularly. If you were to take something from the wrong buffet server at one of these restaurants, that waiter/waitress is going to know immediately. Whoever had this idea at OCB in upper corporate management either is unaware or does not care. I guess in disparate times of bankruptcy and a bad economy, desperate ideas will be tried.

The other new feature is Take Out Buffets. This is actually a good idea and from what I was able to learn an actually generous offer. Take Out lunch buffet is $5.99, dinner is $7.99, and soup and salad bar is $3.99. You are given a foam clam-shell tray, a foam soda cup with lid - and I am assuming something to put soup in. There was no sign of a scale at the cashier and a comment was made by a customer that you are able to fill the tray with whatever and as much as you want - as long as it is not overflowing before it is closed. Done wisely, you can assemble a nice meal for a good price - of course it is not "all that you care to eat", but that is why it is less money. There are many who would like to have the buffet meal but need to be home or want to pick up a nice meal on the way home from work. This will work nicely for them.

None of these new features are listed on the OCB website - curious, but they are not. It may be that these are locally offered. Every poster was an OCB corporate printing - so the offer is coming out of the corporate offices and may be featured at some locations and not or before other locations. Not even the little sign on the tables mentioned these features - these were still pushing the breakfast buffet. But I can say, that these features do currently exist and if they have not come to your OCB, ask why not!

**** Just after I finished writing this article I received an email coupon from OCB (just sign up with an email address on their website) for a free dessert upgrade if a soup and salad lunch is purchased. So I guess they are now starting their campaign!

Friday, October 03, 2008


Ponderosa Steak Restaurants are often called buffet restaurants. I have put off publishing this article several times. I hesitated each time that I thought of posting it. There is an uncertainty about Ponderosa. The reason will be clearer as you read this article. Perhaps it should be titled, "Ponderosa, Is it a Buffet?" In the past month I have learned news that bring up a more important and timely question, "Does Ponderosa as a chain still exist?".

The chain of Ponderosa restaurants is owned by a parent company called Metromedia Restaurant Group. This company also owned and operated Bennigans Restaurants and Steak and Ale Restaurants. In July 2008, the parent company declared bankruptcy, under Chapter 7 and in August closed all of the Bennigans and Steak and Ale restaurants in its holdings - with the exception of very few which were franchised and would continue under independent ownership. The question was raised at the time as to what would become of the Ponderosa/Bonanza chain. Metromedia stated publicly at the time that Ponderosa was operated by a sub-division of thier company that was not declaring bankruptcy and that these restaurants would continue to be open as usual. In September 2008 Metromedia took down the Ponderosa chain website. It was suspected that they would reopen the website at a future date, but going to that web address now brings you to a home page that says that the domain name is "parked there for free". This seems odd to me. If the business will continue as usual, why not have a website for the chain? Why would you not have just a home page that said, "Ponderosa website will be back". The website, when operating, listed the menu, briefly mentioned a "buffet", had a location finder, and had an email club for discount offers on meals. All of that is now gone.

From Internet searches I come across many articles about Ponderosa restaurants closing - some very suddenly, others as a result of law suits against them, and still others due to illegal activities by their franchise owners. It appears that many of the Ponderosa restaurants (perhaps all of them) are franchised ownerships. Franchise owners with more than one Ponderosa are closing all of the stores at once. Articles refer to employees being told not to come to work the next day - there is no work any longer. At one restaurant employees staged a public protest because not only were they told that the restaurant was closing the next day but they would not be receiving their pay checks!

Current searches for individual Ponderosa Restaurants come up with nothing recent. I cannot find a website or customer rating newer than several months ago for any Ponderosa Restaurant.

Prior to this news I had written the following article about Ponderosa restaurants. I present that articel here, but will conclude with some questions for you, our readers.

Several times in my searches for buffets the Ponderosa Restaurants have come up and some of my readers have written and asked why I have not reviewed the chain. Many, many years ago there were Ponderosa restaurants in my area and I did dine there. Back then, there was no buffet. The restaurant was a "discount" steak restaurant that you ordered your meal at a counter and then were seated and wait staff would carry your steak and potato out to you from the kitchen when it was ready. The Ponderosa Restaurants closed around here many years ago. Since then I had never connected Ponderosa with buffet. More recently, there were other Ponderosa restaurants in areas that I have traveled and those I passed seemed to feature a salad bar with your steak order, but that never much appealed to me and I did not go in. Those have closed as well. There are Ponderosa Restaurants in several states and even one as close to me as the Bronx (You know, The Bronx - New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium. Some parts nice and some parts are not the safest areas to travel in).

I asked one of the readers who I was communicating with by email if the Ponderosa Restaurants had full buffets now or was it still an order off the menu restaurant with a salad bar. I was assured that it is a full buffet of the same type as Golden Corral, OCB, etc. With that understanding I decided to do a bit of research and see what I could find out and share with you about Ponderosa. This is another of my discovery articles and I want to be right up front with you all that I have not yet eaten at a Ponderosa Resaturant (at least not for the past 20 or more years), but I will share with you what I have been able to find out. And that is not much.

The Ponderosa website (when there was a website) home page says "Big Honkin' Buffet". That was encouraging. Beyond that there is a description of an order from the menu menu of steaks, chicken, and seafood - much as I remember it 20 years ago. The buffet is mentioned in a small side box with the description of a salad and appetizer bar that includes soups, vegetables, salad, and dessert. The last line states that a variety of beef, chicken, seafood. and pasta dishes appear on the buffet - but items will vary by location and are not at all restaurants. Hmm. I have been through this sought of buffet before - one of my worst buffet experiences was at a Western Sizzlin' in Maryland several years ago.

It has been my experience that when the main business of the chain restaurant is not buffet, the buffet is just a compliment to the items that they want you to order off the menu. Ponderosa talks about getting the buffet with your entree instead of a vegetable and potato. In the restaurants that I have been in that do this ,the buffet is not well maintained and the offerings on the buffet beyond the salad bar are minimal.

A recent special feature at Ponderosa was an All You Can Eat Shrimp Platter served to you at your table and refilled for you by your waiter at your request. This makes me wonder that if there is a buffet, why isn't the all you can eat shrimp on the buffet? Why does this need to be a special that must be brought to you? Another indication that this will not be the type of buffet that we all would expect. Everything on the website is focused around the entree menu including the buffet served as a side dish.

And yet, buffet keeps being associated with Ponderosa - in business articles and in several emails that I have had from readers. On a restaurant trade rating scale of buffet restaurants, Ponderosa was rated higher than OCB. When I went to the Ponderosa website, I truly expected to find a restaurant description that would equal that of Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet, or Ryans, but as I have said it did not.

With what I have learned about Ponderosa (also called Bonanza in some locations) I would want to see the buffet before I committed to eating there. Without one local to me I am not certain that I would travel to one, if I am near one of their locations, to walk in and look around. I certainly would not want to spend money for meals for my wife and myself to find out that we are having a salad bar and hot wings for dinner, which one source stated was what a Ponderosa buffet often has to offer - hot wings, pizza, and pasta - along with a soup and salad bar and small desert selection. Another source stated that some Ponderosa's just have salad bars and not buffets, while others offer a few entrees like fried chicken and meatloaf.

I had been hoping that I would find a description of a "real" buffet restaurant. I was hoping for another chain to explore like Golden Corral, Ryan's, or OCB. I do not think that I have found one.


Now, my questions for our readers - if you have an answer please post a comment.

If you have ever been to a Ponderosa Restaurant what there is to be found on the buffet and how extensive a buffet meal one can have (could one once have had) there?

Is there a Ponderosa Restaurant near you that is still open for business? Have there been any changes there recently? Does it appear that it may be closing?

Has a Ponderosa Restaruant near you or that you know of closed recently?